Commentary

Talking it over with Joe

Leaks create doubt that Joe Paterno was steamrolled by university officials

Updated: July 2, 2012, 11:45 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Joe PaternoJohn McDonnell/The Washington PostJoe Paterno told The Washington Post: "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did."

Now that this ugliness with Jerry Sandusky has reached its justified conclusion, it is relevant to remember that Joe Paterno's steadfast supporters have consistently tried to push the meme that Paterno was a good man who didn't deserve to have his stellar reputation trashed because of the vile actions of a serial pedophile.

For so long, the characterization was that Paterno did what he was required to do and that holding him more accountable was somehow unfair.

Paterno testified before a grand jury that when then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno he had witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in the Penn State showers in 2002, Paterno informed former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz of the incident and let them handle the matter from there.

But is that all he did?

CNN has released a damning report that indicates Paterno might have been much more calculating and involved in Penn State's internal investigation of Sandusky and perhaps convinced Penn State officials not to inform authorities about Sandusky's sick behavior.

According to CNN, a chain of emails that followed the 2002 shower incident shows Curley and Schultz intended to report the allegation to authorities but then reconsidered after conferring with Paterno.

"After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday, I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps," Curley wrote in an email to Schultz and former president Graham Spanier.

My reading of this CNN report says that Paterno's legacy is no longer merely complicated, but a flat-out fake.

I don't know whether we'll ever receive a definitive answer on how Paterno may have used his influence when Sandusky's dark side came to light, but, at the very least, enough has surfaced to seriously question this naive idea that Paterno was steamrolled by the evildoers in the university's chain of command.

Bad acts are committed by good people all the time. But, if these reports are true, Paterno's handling of Sandusky -- who was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse -- makes the Paterno defense that he was overwhelmed by a sensitive situation much less plausible than it was before.

I was never in the camp that sought to give Paterno the benefit of the doubt just because of the way he faithfully served Penn State for 61 years. Although he seemed to stand for old-fashioned ideals, such as integrity and honesty, when it came to protecting innocent children, Paterno seriously failed. Given his power, his conduct after being told what happened in the shower is inexcusable.

Let's use a reasonable amount of skepticism here. A man with Paterno's power doesn't just relinquish control. Not with something like this. Not when the allegations against Sandusky were so awful and incomprehensible that they could level all those years of good will and honor Paterno had built.

Show me a powerful man, and I'll show you a flawed one. I wrote that Paterno absolutely deserved to be fired because few college football coaches possessed his widespread influence and that to cast Paterno as somehow victimized in this process was incredibly shortsighted.

Not everyone felt that way. Certainly not the students who rioted on Paterno's behalf when he was dismissed or the supporters who held a candlelight vigil at his doorstep.

Or the former players who stood by his side. They all wanted to believe that this man, whom they had placed on the highest of pedestals, didn't have any role in enabling a monster such as Sandusky.

Paterno certainly fed those assumptions. Remember what he said in his final interview before his death in January?

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was," he told Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins. "So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."

Paterno painted himself as someone who just didn't know better and even told the Post that he had "never heard of rape and a man."

There was sympathy for Paterno, but it's difficult not to wonder whether he manipulated those sympathies for his own gain.

Paterno isn't here to answer for himself, but his family released a statement Monday that insisted Paterno wanted justice. But if that were the case, why wouldn't Paterno be leading the charge to expose Sandusky to police?

"With the leaking of selective emails over the last few days, it is clear that someone in a position of authority is not interested in a fair or thorough investigation," the family said.

Let's use a reasonable amount of skepticism here. A man with Paterno's power doesn't just relinquish control. Not with something like this. Not when the allegations against Sandusky were so awful and incomprehensible that they could level all those years of goodwill and honor Paterno had built.

Although Curley and Schultz are facing perjury charges, there is a sense now that maybe Paterno was let off the hook.

This is not to say that Paterno deserved to have formal charges filed against him, especially given that the authorities decided otherwise. But what's becoming abundantly clear is that Paterno's image was only what he wanted us to see.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

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